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Eoin Micheál McNamara, Visiting Research Fellow, FIIA



General Colin Powell’s passing has renewed debate on the doctrine he formulated to prevent further US military failures after Vietnam. Tis debate resonates with current policy problems as the US rethinks its grand strategy beyond “forever wars”

and its disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan – the very scenarios that the Powell Doctrine was designed to avoid.

Presidents Joe Biden and Donald national interest at stake and no in- ladder from a soldier in Vietnam Trump diverge in many ways, but tention of fghting to win a complete during the 1960s to his tenure as the intervention preferences of victory”. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staf both have concluded the US-led For Professor Robert Gilpin, between 1989 and 1993, these prin- era of liberal state-building. This the Doctrine’s three most impor- ciples were credited as a critical in- changing tide prompts questions tant principles stress that the US fuence in the swift US-led victory on whether counterterrorism should only undertake military in the 1990s Gulf War.

powered by “contactless” mili- intervention when there is a “clear The principle of destroying tary technologies now makes the and present threat” to its national threats with “overwhelming force”

Powell Doctrine obsolete. With security; that this threat must be elevates conventional ground

“quagmire anxiety” a continuous destroyed with “overwhelming forces as the primary operational concern for US strategists after force” to deliver complete victory instrument. US leaders have long Vietnam, Professor Walter LaFeber as a platform for lasting peace in been reluctant to commit to this summarized the Powell Doctrine the area of operations; and that a principle. In Afghanistan, when as a set of principles to ensure that credible “exit strategy” must be Kabul fell to the Northern Alliance in the US military “must no longer devised to avoid an imbroglio if full November 2001, the US launched be placed in killing fields when stabilization is not achieved. De- Operation Anaconda and the Battle there seemed to be no overriding fning Powell’s rise up the military of Tora Bora with “evasive warfare”


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focused on airpower and a light Special Operations Force (SOF) footprint to coordinate Afghan proxies in raids for Al-Qaeda and Taliban commanders.

According to a 2009 US Senate report, both political and military leaders saw this deviation from the Powell Doctrine as necessary to avoid “an anti-American back- lash” to “fuel a widespread insur- gency”. However, evasive warfare was soon blamed for some critical errors; the same report argues that overwhelming force with a larger US Marine or conventional force footprint could have curtailed the Taliban revival and the escape of some Al-Qaeda leaders. Apprehen- sive US policymakers did not uti- lize military units in the region for a “sweep-and-block maneuver”

that could have captured Osama bin Laden and other militants.

Dr Andrew Peek argues that the Powell Doctrine was ahead of its time because it narrowly refocus- es the US back towards clear and present threats and clear exit strat- egies, as Washington seeks to move on from long-term state-build- ing in Afghanistan and Iraq. A recent publication from the liber- tarian CATO Institute, the leading voice for greater “restraint” in US foreign policy, calls for the Powell Doctrine to be “resurrected” for

the current era. Nevertheless, as military technology has advanced dramatically since the Doctrine’s first formulation, it needs to be questioned whether this is possible.

As liberal regime change has faded, a more utilitarian and con- tactless intervention paradigm has taken shape. Te Powell Doctrine’s supporters omit that its over- whelming force principle relies on high-contact conventional ground forces, which US leaders now per- ceive as prohibitively risky and only to be used sparingly. With a nar- rower counterterrorism focus, the US has recently intervened with risk-efcient, targeted drone strikes against adversaries in Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. Mil- itary technology that is contactless for the user – not for the adversary – can jeopardize the Powell Doctrine’s clear and present threat principle because it eases the intervention risk that worries Western leaders the most: large soldier fatality numbers, thus renewing the temptation to use force for less important risks before exhausting diplomatic options.

US interventions now empha- size very flexible and short-term partnerships. Washington has re- peatedly been reluctant to intervene with conventional ground forces since the Syrian War began in 2011.

However, this war has highlighted

further utilitarian variation as the US combined conventional airpow- er with drone strikes and surveil- lance to confront ISIS and Assad.

While SOF teams and contractors supported favoured proxies at war on the ground, this approach has parallels with later US actions in Afghanistan. Trump’s swift aban- donment of Kurdish forces in Syr- ia in 2019 and Biden’s disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 both highlight that if direct US interests are no longer served, partners must fend for themselves.

Showing clear distance from re- gime-change strategies, this gives the US low-cost exit opportunities, but contradicts the complete victory logic stressed as crucial in the Powell Doctrine.

Washington is less likely to pri- oritize broad legitimacy-based co- alitions for future interventions; its focus will instead narrow to part- ners that supply ad hoc assistance.

While profound for US military action in the Middle East and other civil-war-torn regions, this is still unlikely to afect territorial securi- ty in Europe, where Washington’s non-guarantee-based partnerships – such as those with Finland and Sweden – crucially remain utiliza- ble for NATO’s broader deterrence posture.




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